Gérard Grisey

Born 1946. Died 1998.


Just before his untimely death in 1998 at the age of 52, Grisey completed his Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil ('Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold') - the threshold being death as described in ancient Egyptian texts. That awesome coincidence gave the premiere, which took place in London the following year, a peculiar poignancy; but even so there was no doubting the tremendous, if muted, power of this last utterance. It came as a shock to an English audience who, if they'd heard anything about Grisey at all, knew of him as one of the French school of so-called 'spectral' composers.

The music of these composers grows not from motifs or rhythms or harmonies but from the teeming inner life of complex sounds, a life which the ear registers only as colour and texture, but which analysis shows to be fabulously rich and spread across the audible spectrum.

In a piece of 'spectral' music like Grisey's vast Transitoires for orchestra - one of the six works in the cycle Espaces acoustiques which occupied him from 1975 to 1985 and whose instrumental forces grow from solo viola to 'grand orchestre' - this complexity is actually revealed, as if the orchestra is meditating on its own nature as a sound-source, and then transformed.

Such an approach to composition can seem coldly analytic, but to dismiss Grisey as a mere technician would be wide of the mark. His real concern is the human subject, and how it relates to time. In his view, music can rescue the listener from the splintered and distracted time-flow of our age by focusing on transformational processes, whose 'wintry slowness will be the reversed echo of a stress-filled world rushing towards its end'. Those processes need not be acoustical; as Grisey discovered during the 1980s and 1990s, they could spring from the notion of 'archetypes', musical gestures that owe nothing to any particular tradition. That discovery opened up a new, rough-edged and earthy expressive world which Grisey at the time of his death had barely begun to explore.

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